I first got to know Bill King back in 2007, when we engaged in a discussion on neoconservatism, its SD-USA roots, and foreign intervention as a policy and philosophy. Bill had penned an excellent Master's thesis about the development of the ideology we now commonly refer to as "neoconservatism," and I have gone back to it routinely as a reference point in my own research (you can download it here). Since then, Bill has begun a PhD dissertation at the University of Ohio expanding on the themes and research in his previous graduate work. Even better, he has started blogging at The Struggle for the World, adding his insight to current political and social events. The following interview was conducted over a two week period by email correspondence.
How did you first get involved in politics? Were you part of any political party or movement that stirred your interest in neoconservatism?
Well first let me say that I’ve been a fan of your blog for quite a while now, so it’s great to be able to have this online conversation with you.
I’ve been interested in politics almost as far back as I can remember. I grew up in Canada, but I was born in Colombia, where my dad’s side of the family was involved for many years in the far left and Liberal Party. My dad was active in the Young Communists in the late 1950s, at a time when Colombia was in a civil war between Liberals and Communists on one side and Conservatives on the other. The violence in his home province was intense and he was lucky, unlike most of his comrades, to survive those years. Later on in the 1970s, one of my uncles was a medic for the ELN, a “Guevarist” guerrilla group smaller than the larger and more orthodox FARC, and another uncle was involved in electoral politics with the Liberal Party. So you could say that, defined broadly, politics runs pretty deep in the family.
My own activism started during my undergraduate days in the late 1980s when I joined the Canadian section of the Fourth International. As I saw it then, Trotskyism offered an ideal combination of anti-capitalism and anti-Stalinism, and I fervently believed that this version of Marxism stood for an expansion of human freedom. Of course, in order to believe this I had to overlook a few things like Trotsky’s own brutality when in power, the movement’s anti-democratic theories, and the atrocious internal life of most Trotskyist groups. But such is the power of ideology.
I left the Trotskyists in the mid-1990s, having become thoroughly disillusioned with the far left. But it wasn’t until 9/11 that I really began rethinking my political education. The attacks of that day made me realize that for all the problems with democratic capitalism, this type of open and pluralistic society was very much worth defending against a fascistic movement like radical Islam. That was a real turning point for me, since as a Marxist I had always had an oppositional attitude toward capitalist or “imperialist” society. Even after I left the movement my political instincts remained hard-left. Watching airplanes slam into the World Trade Center that morning helped rid me of that mindset, and it clarified for me exactly where I now stood. It was a really visceral thing.
After that, I began reassessing pretty much everything I had previously learned about politics, history, and the way the world worked. As part of that reassessment, I found that some of the sharpest analyses of how to respond to radical Islam—including the need to support liberals and reformers in Muslim countries—were written by so-called “neocons.” You can imagine my amusement when, during the debates leading up to the Iraq war, I read some of their critics accuse them of advocating a version of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution! The idea was so ludicrous that I wrote an article debunking it and, to my surprise, it was accepted for publication in an academic journal. The more I read about the development of neoconservatism the more interesting I found it, so I decided to pursue the topic by returning to academia and doing graduate studies in history. That led to my master’s thesis at the University of Calgary and to the doctoral dissertation I’m now writing at Ohio University.
I am interested in how your Colombian family’s politics have changed since their time in leftist movements there. Have they changed their political orientations? What do they think of your current political leanings?
These days none of my relatives are involved in the revolutionary left, thankfully. Some still support the far left, particularly Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” in Venezuela, but it’s passive support. Others are center-left, and still others, particularly the younger ones, aren’t interested in politics at all. No conservatives though. As for how they view my post-9/11 evolution, I think it’s fair to say they have a hard time grasping it. Their terms of reference are so different, and they don’t follow the debates here in North America and Europe, so the way they make sense of it is simply to say that I’m now “on the right.” One of my long term projects for the next time I visit Colombia is to sit down with them and explain that I’m actually a conservative liberal informed by Cold War social democracy! We’ll see how well it translates.
Give us a brief synopsis of your dissertation.
My dissertation—which is an expansion of the masters thesis that you read—explores neoconservative support for democracy promotion during the Cold War. The idea of promoting democracy abroad, even if only by example, of course goes right back to the very founding of the republic. In a more abstract sense it goes even further back to the Puritan mission to “save the world.” And to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the administration in office, it’s been a constant theme in American foreign policy. In its modern version, we’ve seen it especially since the Woodrow Wilson administration. The question I’m trying to answer is why the neoconservatives as a political and intellectual current became so identified with this concept, why they’re such fervent exponents of it, and how their support for it originated.
The argument I’m making is that the young social democrats who became neoconservatives in the early 1970s, such as Joshua Muravchik, Carl Gershman, and the late Penn Kemble, developed a democracy promotion perspective in the Socialist Party and Young People’s Socialist League (and later Social Democrats, USA) and then brought that outlook with them into the neocon movement. It’s only recently that the social democrats’ role in the history of neoconservatism has started to be appreciated, particularly in books like Justin Vaisse’s excellent Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of a Movement. But so far, they’ve only been mentioned in terms of their anti-Communism. My aim is to demonstrate the link between the social democrats and neoconservatism’s strong support for promoting democracy abroad. Since most people don’t associate neoconservatism with social democracy it’s also a counterintuitive argument, and those are always fun to make.
Part 2 tomorrow, on the state of neoconservatism and the like...